Archive for May 17th, 2011


From Freedom Rides To Basketball

A TV program on PBS last night, entitled Freedom Riders, was a excellent 2-hour special regarding the courageous black and white students, who risked their lives in places like Alabama and Mississippi in 1961, to integrate commercial busing in the South.

Although I cannot comment on the Freedom Rides, since I was in grade school in Wisconsin at that time, I will share an integration story that happened just a few years later, after the Civil Rights Movement spread into the North, when my coach took me into Milwaukee to participate in an integrated basketball game.

Everyone in my suburban Milwaukee hometown in 1965 was white. The only black I had ever seen as a kid was Hank Aaron, who played for the Milwaukee Braves, and my only observations of him were from the left field bleachers. Unlike my hometown, Milwaukee’s inner city was black. Although segregation was not official policy, it was customary that the races simply did not mix.

My school sought to break down racial barriers and to change the culture by scheduling an integrated basketball game, between our all-white squad, and an all-black team. Since it would have been too controversial for the blacks to travel in our all-white suburb, the game was played at the Cherry Street School in Milwaukee.

The first thing I noticed as we walked out onto their old basketball court was the shape of it. A normal court is rectangular, with one basket on each end. Their court was too narrow to play the long way, so two buckets were attached to the same wall, and a triangle was painted on the floor between them. Local rules required players to dribble or pass the ball, in a semi-circular fashion around the triangle, in order to get from one basket to the other. A ball thrown over the triangle, or dribbled on it, was deemed out-of-bounds. I realized they had a major home-court advantage.

Before the game, someone informed us we would be shaking their hands, but we were told not to worry, as they said this act would cause no harm. The game itself was close, but at the final buzzer, a black kid sank a shot from the apex of the triangle (downtown), and they won. We shook hands and returned to our white homes. I met my first blacks, played them, and learned they were human. It was just one game, but a positive lifelong lesson in race relations.

Unfortunately, times changed again in 1967 and 1968, as peaceful efforts at integration were replaced by rage. While 1967 was the Summer of Love in some places, rioting led to an area-wide 24-hour curfew in Milwaukee. By 1968, all talk of integration ended.

Back in the day, I learned not all steps towards integration needed to occur through violence on buses, or by federal legislation. In my case, all it took was an idea, a basketball, and a hand shake.